Friday, February 12, 2010

Herding Web 2.0 Cats: Contributing to the Social Network

This is the second of three posts looking at the details of a functional framework for Web 2.0 / social media. An introductory post is here, and the first substantive post on the framework can be found here.

Geez, you sure can tell when semester hits - blog posts here come to a grinding halt! What was supposed to be a short interlude of a couple of days has turned into a couple of weeks.

In the first post on the framework, we looked at three kinds of content contributions members of a social media community can make to a social media platform. This post addresses the second category of contributions: those to the social network itself.

The social network is a critical part of what makes Web 2.0 different - in fact, I think that the social nature of Web 2.0 is the thing that makes Web 2.0 fundamentally different to what came before. Social phenomena are notoriously hard to understand. Just look at the competing paradigms in sociology and social science research, all wrestling with the complexity of explaining non-rational human behaviour.

But for our purposes I think we can conceive of three different kinds of contributions to a social network supported by a social media platform:

  1. Creating new social networks or groupings
  2. Administering these networks
  3. General participation in the social network

Each of these three kinds of activities can be formalised to a greater or lesser extent and either explicitly built into the social media platform, or occur in a much more organic way. Indeed, even when formal mechanisms are in place to establish groups or networks, informal groups also tend to form. For example,'s groups or Reddit's sub-reddits provide explicit, formal groups to which community members may belong. But the use of contact or friends lists, or simply engaging with other users on the site can lead to informal groupings that can socialise and collaborate. Networks or groups can be short-lived, forming around a specific event, or more permanent.

Regardless of the purpose of the grouping, at some stage the network has to be initiated which can happen in several ways. Many sites support mechanisms for reflecting real-world social networks such as families and friends through the use of contact lists and groupings. These also support intra-platform groupings as they form as well. Social networks will typically have various formal and informal norms and rules (with occasional discrepancies between the two). A group might form based on the initiative of one, or a small group of members, or the platform itself may encourage a grouping, such as with Facebook's country, city or school-based networks. In the former case, the initiators of a social network may require a comparatively high profile to encourage other users to connect with the group.

Social networks also rely on governance of the group to enforce the rules and norms. In some cases, these tasks fall to the group as a whole, in others there are one or more members designated as 'moderators' or something similar. At first, it may be that the members who started the group perform the role of group moderator, but over time, other members and the group as a whole can take on the tasks. A healthy social network, to a certain extent, will be self-governing, but from time-to-time issues arise where if there is disagreement on how the rules should be applied, or discrepancy between what the group as a whole expects and what is actually undertaken by the group moderators, the group itself may devolve into factions or simply go out of existence. Group governance, therefore, is an important part of ensuring that a social network remains healthy and functional. The health and functionality of a social media platform itself is a function of the health and functionality of the various networks that it supports.

Finally, there are the acts of socialisation of the community members themselves. Typically these socialisation acts will be in the form of the primary and secondary contributions to content I wrote about in the last post. But they also include private messages (like Twitter's direct message feature, or Flickr's mail system). These activities collectively make up the social fabric of the individual social networks as well as the broader community on a social media platform, all of which are further shaped by the technical design of the platform itself.

Interestingly, while the nature of the technology (ie. its design and features) shapes the nature of the social networks on the platform, the community also helps to shape the technology (for the academically minded, this is an example of Gidden's duality of structure and Orlikowksi's adaptation of this idea to technology). This idea, of the platform itself being shaped by the community will be the topic of my next post, which will hopefully not as long coming as this post was!

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